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The Hancock House

The Hancock HouseBuilt in 1734, the Hancock House is an important tangible link to understanding the history of Salem County and our nation's struggle for independence. It was the home of a prominent Salem County family and is an excellent example of English Quaker patterned end wall brick houses associated with the lower Delaware Valley and southwestern New Jersey. It was also the scene of a British-led massacre during the Revolutionary War. The story of the Hancock House begins in 1675 when John Fenwick, a lawyer and Quaker from England, arrived in West Jersey (now Salem County). With land purchased two years earlier, he established the first permanent English settlement here. called "Fenwick's Colony, " and founded the town of Salem. Eager to populate the area with skilled, industrious individuals, lie advertised the area's assets by stating"... if there be any terrestrial "Canaan " 'tis surely here, where the Land floweth with Milk and Honey."

The Hancock Legacy

The Hancock House sits on property that was purchased from John Fenwick in 1675 by William Hancock, an English shoemaker. Upon his death, the property passed to his wife Isabella and then to his nephew. John Hancock. John's inheritance of approximately 500 acres made him a major landholder in Fenwick's Colony. He contributed to the development of the area by building a bridge across Alloways Creek in 1708. Now known as "Hancock's Bridge," it permitted passage of an important highway between Salem and Greenwich and gave the settlement its name. When John Hancock died in 1709, he left his property to his son William. William, perhaps the most distinguished of John's 11 children, became a Justice of the Peace for Salem County and served in the Colonial Assembly for 20 years. In 1734, William and his wife Sarah built the Hancock House. Their initials [W H S] and the construction date [1734] can be seen in the brickwork on the houses west elevation. Upon his death in 1762, William left his house to his son William, who succeeded him in the Assembly and became His Majesty's Judge of the County Court for the county of Salem. It was this William that figured in the massacre of March 1778.

On the night her father was killed, Sarah Hancock Sinnickson was at her home in Salem with a British force in residence. Frantic with grief and rage at the news of her father's death, she fiercely reproached the officers for the horrid deeds committed by their comrades. The officers threatened to liana her if she did not desist. Sarah defied r';t"' ami flor whatever reason, the British -,•'..;' not carry out their threat. In the 18th century, Salem County was inhabited largely by English Quaker? who were opposed to violence and armed conflict. Yet many supported the American cause. This stance inevitably brought the tragedy of war to hearth and home. The winter of 1777 found General George Washing- ton and his defeated and demoralized American Army encamped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. The British occupied Philadelphia. Both armies were in desperate need of food and supplies. In February 1778, General Washington ordered General "Mad" Anthony Wayne to forage for food, cattle and horses in South Jersey. A month later. General Sir William Howe dispatched 1500 British troops and loyalists under General Charles Mawhood to do the same. Mawhood's foraging activities met with considerable resistance from the Salem County militia and local patriots. Repulsed at the Battle of Quinton's Bridge, a key transportation link to the fertile fields of Cumberland and Salem Counties, the British were eager for a victory. They also wanted to punish the people of Salem County for their support of the Continental Army. On March 20, 1 ?. Mawhood issued the following mandate to his British troops: "Go—spare no one—put all to death—give no quarters." At approximately five o'clock in the morning of March 21. P78, these orders were carried out. With local Tories (British loyalist?) acting as guides, Major John Graves Simcoe and a force of approximately 300 men attacked the Hancock House where they knew the local militia was stationed. Everyone inside was bayoneted; not a shot was fired. Among the ten who were killed, was Judge William Hancock. The British had expected to find a much larger, more heavily armed force. They had not expected to find Judge Hancock. who despite his strong American sympathy was an official in the British colonial government. Proud of their "victory," but chagrined that they had not defeated the Americans, British troops left Salem County" within a week of the massacre. The Hancock house remained in the family until 1911, although the extent to which the house was used as a private residence and the property farmed is uncertain.

Petitions to operate tavern, dating from 1761 to 1870, suggest a seer-.' t. . ;r die house was leased for this purpose. Another commercial use of the property is revealed in a family will dated 1884. In it, the Hancock House was described as a "hotel property and farm." The State of New Jersey acquired the Hancock House for 54,000 in 1931.

The Hancock House The Hancock House earned a place in history on that fateful day in March 1778. Yet the story of its architecture is also important. With its distinctive patterned end wall brickwork, simple lines and little ornamentation, it reflects the building traditions of the Quakers' English homeland. Like many other Quaker homes in Salem County, the Hancock House reflects several different building periods. The main 2 story -ect;on dates to 1734. Construction dates of the two smaller sections are not certain. Another common feature of the Hancock House is the type of brick used in its construction. In 1683, the West Jersey assembly passed an act standardizing the size of the bricks and subjecting them to inspection. Those not meeting this standard were discarded. Such government regulation of the brick-manufacturing industry ensured the quality and durability of these bricks. The Hancock House's unique herringbone pattern in both its end walls and the checkerboard pattern on its front and back elevations are achieved by laving the brick on end and by using vitrified bricks. Vitrified bricks have a dark, blue-glazed surface caused by their proximity to the fire in the manufacturing process. When laid with the more common red colored bricks, they contrast sharply, creating a pattern. Other elements of this architectural style include a pent-roof that wraps around the front and back of the house; simple entrance steps; interior paneling and the use of such local materials as Wistarburg glass. The Hancock House is listed on the NJ and National Registers of Historic Places.

Copyright © 2001- , Terry Muse 
Revised: October 8, 2001
Contact: Terry Muse
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